Lemonade: Black Womanhood, Black Pain, and Black Joy

Couple of weeks ago, I was scrolling down Twitter, minding my business as per usual, right? A tweet from HBO is retweeted onto my timeline and my thumb bout near breaks when I rush to press play on the clip of Beyonce’s preview of Lemonade. The video was only…what? Thirty seconds? Not only was it short but it was also elusive. It didn’t clearly say whether it was going to be a music video or album.

It didn’t matter to me though. I just knew that on Saturday, April 23rd, I was going to be sitting in front of a TV, snacks prepared and edges gated for the wonderfulness Beyonce was about to grace us with.

I had my assumptions as anyone else would. I suspected it had something to do with her upcoming album. I was even correct in thinking it was a film. My suspicions were spot on about a lot of things regarding Lemonade but what I was not at all prepared for was this raw and painfully unguarded body of vivid visuals and music to match.

After viewing Lemonade, I needed several days to stomach what I had just witnessed. I’ve watched it several times. I even listened to the film’s audio (Meaning, I listened to the film without viewing it). After much unpacking and mulling through my thoughts, I now am finally able to accurately write about my reaction and overall thoughts about Lemonade.

I interpreted Lemonade as a symbolic representation of the cycle of gradually dealing with loss, grief, and infidelity within the context of black womanhood. The idea of it being a cycle–or rather a process–comes from the fact that the film is categorized into stages: Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Resurrection, Hope, Redemption.

Beyonce carries us through “Intuition” with the somber ballad “Pray, You Catch Me.” This song gave me chills. I interpreted it as someone hoping their lover is staying true to them and their relationship. I love seeing Beyonce in these types of moments: everything is minimal and it’s just her in all her natural glory and the music. To see her in these moments, I believe, is a privilege because she’s so private about her life. To see her in such sincerity coupled along with a raw display of her talent–her voice–is an honor.

What I also appreciate about Lemonade, the film, is that it featured Beyonce diegetically reciting poetry by the brilliant Warsan Shire–a Somali poet. I’ve seen Shire’s work on Tumblr and Twitter for years. I’ve always admired how she can pack so much into one stanza. Each of Shire’s poems, performed by Beyonce, narrated each transition of Lemonade.

One line from the poem within Intuition stuck out to me: “You remind me of my father. A magician. Able to exist in two places at once. In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 AM and lie to me. What are you hiding?” This line hints at infidelity and it also shows that infidelity in the speaker’s family is generational. In fact intra-generational conflicts tend to be an ongoing theme in Lemonade as well. We’ll get to that later though.

From “Intuition”, we moved onto the second stage–“Denial.” In this, the speaker tries to push aside thoughts of her husband cheating on her. I thought it was interesting how religion and the Bible are strategically used in this section. When Beyonce is emerged in the water, there is a floating Bible beside her and there is also biblical references in the poem she is performing. Oftentimes, some religious people–particularly Christians–use their faith to ignore the underlying issues at hand. They immerse themselves with the Bible, church, prayer and disregard the truth God is trying to show them.

In the poem in this section, the speaker talks about how they went through the motions of going to church, getting baptized, and praying. She sought different solutions and different outlets that could stop her suspicions of marital infidelity. The imagery for this phase enamored me. I find Beyonce being submerged into water as symbolic. Water, for humans, impairs our ability to hear, breathe , and see clearly. Water is not our natural habitat. That in itself is symbolic of one immersing themselves with other things instead of focusing on the issue at hand.

Following that round of imagery, Beyonce emerges from the building in a gorgeous mustard yellow dress with cascades of water following her. As others have mentioned, that scene reminded me of the Yoruba goddess Oshun. Bodies of water and the color yellow are two of Oshun’s trademarks.  I remember reading somewhere that Oshun’s name also means to transform which is a remarkable parallel because the overall theme, like I mentioned, is a cycle–evolving from loss. One last interesting parallel is Oshun is said to have a bad temper. Her temper is seldom but when it flares, it explodes which is pictured in this section along with the earlier half of the film.

I digress though…

In her yellow dress, Beyonce skips around on a street, breaking everything in sight with her bat “Hot Sauce”, performing to “Hold Up.” I love this song because the instrumental and lyrics/visual serve as an oxymoron in of itself. The instrumental is bright and fun while the lyrics contain lines like: “I’mma fuck me up a bitch” which refers to her lover’s mistress. The speaker alludes to her rather “looking crazy” than being walked over by her supposed unfaithful partner. That symbolism lies within Beyonce destroying everything with a smile on her face in front of other strangers.

Following “Denial” comes “Anger” and “Apathy.” The poem during this transition is completely harrowing and terrifying. Beyonce says:

“If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap. Her sternum, my bedazzled cane. We can pose for a photograph–all three of us. Immortalized. You and your perfect girl.”

Phew. Wow. Okay. Tell me how you really feel.

The obvious theme of being fed up with her partner’s infidelity continues into “Anger” where Beyonce–in her snatched cornrows–lets her husband know she’s not the one to fuck with in the heavy rock anthem “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”

Let me just say, whoever grand idea it was to feature Jack White on this track, clearly has their head on right. His feature was not out of place at all. It was an unexpectedly great complement to Beyonce’s vocals.  What I also loved about this song is how it says: “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself.” It’s fitting honestly. A relationship is about unity–becoming one in a sense. When you abandon your promises to your partner, when you lie to them, you’re hurting your other half–a part of you. You’re playing yourself, as Bey says.

What I also loved about this section was the audio clip of Malcolm X’s speech about Black women being the most unprotected and disrespected women in the United States being played over clips of every-day Black women. I saw this as fitting too. Black women are the most marginalized group in the United States. Everyone–including black men–benefit and some do reap joy from misogynoir. This song is about not tolerating disrespect and pointing out when you fuck with me, you’re doing damage to your own self.

That moment showed that Lemonade was going to be more than just a reaction to infidelity but was going to touch on issues outside of romance–further adding more depth to this project.

From “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, we move onto “Sorry”, one of my favorite songs off this album. “Sorry” also moves us into the section “Apathy.” At this point, the speaker is now numb to the pain. She is supposedly care-free and doesn’t give a fuck about the bullshit. I think I relate to this song because that’s currently where I’m at in terms of how I feel about love. Perhaps that’s why I fuck so hard with that song.

I loved the cameo from Serena Williams. I think it was significant because Williams has been constantly scrutinized in the public eye. People have been trying their hardest to revoke Serena’s femininity because she’s a dark skin, muscular black woman. So to see her bouncing and twerking around with Beyonce, hair down, looking cute as fuck, relishing in her black femininity, it was important. It was a middle finger up to her haters.

Following “Apathy” comes “Emptiness” which features the track “6 Inch.” Within the context of Lemonade, I found this part to be about the speaker finding satisfaction in things outside of her pain. She goes out and she makes her money. If we’re thinking outside of Lemonade, I think this is a great getting ready for the club song. I’m just saying. It makes me feel like a bad bitch *twerks in 6 inch heels*.

After “Emptiness” comes “Accountability” and “Reformation.” This section contain tracks such as “Daddy’s Lessons” and “Love Drought.” This section also takes us into the the later half of the journey where she begins to let her guard back down.

What I found interesting was how she paralleled the wrongdoings of her husband to the mistreatment of her mother by her father. A line that stood out to me during this section was:

“Did he bend your reflection? Did he make you forget your own name? Did he convince you he was a god? Are you a slave to the back of his head? ….Am I talking about your husband or father?”

This continues the intra-generational theme I mentioned earlier. She continually mentions how her husband’s dishonesty reflects her very own father’s. She also compares herself to her mother at one point in Lemonade, saying that she aspires to be like her in a sense. That shows that not only are the stages of grieving with pain a cycle, but the issue in itself is a constant cycle that carries through generations of her family.

“Daddy’s Lessons” will probably be one of the five country songs I’ll ever like. I feel like this track was a fusion of both her Texan and Creole background because not only is the country influence apparent, there are hints of jazz throughout the record–especially towards the opening half.  “Love Drought” is also one of my top favorites tracks from this album. It carries into the stage of her softening around her partner and giving him credit for trying to get things right again.

The imagery during “Love Drought” was interesting to me as well. Initially when I watched that scene, it strangely reminded me of my Gullah heritage. My family is from low-country Charleston, SC. Seeing the old willow trees, long marshes and rivers, tall tan grasses lining the river made me reminiscent of my childhood growing up in Charleston. Later, I learned that that scene in Lemonade was reportedly influenced by the film, “Daughters of the Dust”–a film directed by Julie Dash about Gullah black women in Georgia.

I think that the imagery of Beyonce walking through the water, with a line of black women, dressed in similar dress following her, and “Love Drought” ties together in a sense. This half is about healing. For many black women, being around other black women is therapeutic. Being around our sisters is typically our safe haven. From my understanding (I haven’t seen it yet), that scene was reflective of a scene in “Daughters of the Dust” where the women are celebrating and basking in each other’s joy.

Black Southern culture heavily influenced Lemonade, I feel. I also feel that that’s inevitable seeing as Beyonce is southern and black. Lemonade not only referenced Gullah and Creole culture, it also referenced the black church. There were scenes of the black church and audio clips of religious Black women sharing how their faith has helped them make it through. Other Black Southern influences would be the setting as well. As I mentioned, the scenes were reminiscent of Charleston for me. She also took us to New Orleans.

There are so many moments in Lemonade where Beyonce gives a nod towards black womanhood: the clip of Malcolm X’s speech about black women, Warsan Shire–a black woman–being the author of the poems, referencing Yoruba goddess Oshun, and featuring so many black women in the film. Matter fact, all I saw was black women, especially black women and girls who have been scrutinized by society: Serena Williams, Zendaya, and Blue Ivy.

The next stages are: “Forgiveness”, “Resurrection”, “Hope”, and “Redemption.” In this phase, she tells her lover to wove her back again–to make her whole again. What I like about this section, in terms of content, she doesn’t dismiss his wrongdoings but acknowledges them and then forgives him. This phase features tracks such as “Sandcastles”, “Forward”, “Freedom”, “All Night”, and “Formation.”

I love “Sandcastles” for its sheer honesty. I loved that it was simply her and the piano. It made me think of Prince and when he said that he told Beyonce that if she learned how to play the piano, she could do it all. I loved that “Forward” followed “Sandcastles” as well. In “Sandcastles” she’s truly let her guard down and begins to reconnect with her lover. In “Forward” she wants to move on with her partner for the better.

I loved James Blake’s feature on “Forward.” His voice suited the solemn nature of the track. I also admired how, in the film during “Forward”, Beyonce features the mothers of black fallen victims of police and white supremacist brutality such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin’s mothers. They’re holding pictures of their sons. In a way, this also shows how Lemonade was not simply just about dealing with infidelity but with loss in general.

From “Forward” we move onto “Freedom” which is, in my opinion, a black woman’s cry in the face of injustice. “I break chains all by myself. Can’t let my freedom rot in hell,” she belts on this track. You can’t tell me that’s not what most Black women’s mindset is. Black women are constantly looking out for everyone else but that support is rarely reciprocated. Black women are the ones who look out for black women’s backs. I also think Kendrick Lamar’s feature was relevant seeing as he has also been outspoken about racial dynamics.

I loved the clip of her grandmother reading her speech at her birthday party where she says when life gives her lemons, she makes lemonade which explains the title and concept of this album. I enjoyed “All Night” too. It was a good concluding track and I love how she included clips of varying couples including queer couples. As for “Formation”, I already covered that when it was released as a single. Read it here.

All in all, I enjoyed Lemonade. I think this is her best work in terms of content-wise. I think this album truly shows how much she’s grown as an artist and as a person in general. It includes so many themes such as dealing with loss, heartbreak, and acknowledging intergenerational issues. Whether this album was autobiographical or not, it has made me feel closer to her in a sense. I can tell, despite anything, there were personal moments in this album. This is her most mature content to date I believe. The production was seamless, the features were fitting, she was open and honest, plus she included all types of black women excellence in the film. This was such an amazing project. Beyonce keeps pushing the margin and I can not see what she has in store.

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